Two orbiters begin their long journey to Mercury Friday night

Katie Ramirez
October 24, 2018

The spacecraft is due to be launched into space from an Ariane 5 rocket at 2.45 tomorrow morning, and once it reaches Mercury two probes will be released into orbit around the solar system's smallest planet.

The BepiColombo space mission will take off from a spaceport in French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America at 12:45pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time.

Media playback is unsupported on your deviceMedia captionMercury: Learning from the strangest planetWhy is it such a long journey?

During the seven-year journey to Mercury they will operate cyclically, two at a time, to preserve their lifespan.

"One of the biggest challenges is the Sun's enormous gravity, which makes it hard to place a spacecraft into a stable orbit around Mercury". But the lion's share of the needed energy will come from planetary flybys, using the gravity of Earth, Venus and Mercury to help shape the trajectory and put the brakes on, slowing the BepiColombo spacecraft enough to achieve orbit around Mercury.

"Congratulations on the successful launch of Ariane 5 carrying BepiColombo, ESA-JAXA joint Mercury exploration mission", says Hiroshi Yamakawa, JAXA President.

The project carries the name of 20th century Italian mathematician Giuseppe (Bepi) Colombo, who discovered that Mercury rotates around its axis three times for every two revolutions around the sun. BepiColombo is Europe's first mission to the planet, and it is intended as a follow-on to NASA's Messenger spacecraft that spent a period from 2011 to 2015 at Mercury and studied its chemistry, geology, and magnetic field.

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On October 22, the prime minister had arrived in Madina, where he was received by Governor Prince Faisal bin Salman. Saudi Arabia confirmed its interest in this project, and an MoU will be signed after obtaining cabinet approval.

Mercury is the innermost planet to the Sun and is, unusually, mostly made of metal. ESA's Mercury Planetary Orbiter has instruments created to study the planet's interior, composition and magnetic field.

In 2025 it will place two probes, one European and the other Japanese, in orbit around Mercury, the least explored planet in the solar system. Data collected from 16 scientific instruments will provide insights into the geological and chemical composition of the planet, along with its structure, the characteristics of its magnetic field and how it interacts with the solar wind.

Airbus in the United Kingdom built large parts of the MPO and the mission's propulsion unit, called the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM).

The two science orbiters will also be able to operate some of their instruments during the cruise phase, affording unique opportunities to collect scientifically valuable data at Venus.

Both space researchers were involved in the BepiColombo mission and were part of the advisory group of the European Space Agency (ESA).

Scientist Joe Zender explains, "If we want to understand our Earth and how life can [begin] on Earth and maybe on other planets we have to understand our solar system".

From liftoff until the spacecraft is functioning stably in its planned orbit, BepiColombo will be in what engineers call the "Launch and Early Orbit Phase" (LEOP)-the period in which the spacecraft is gradually switched on and systems are checked out to ensure the craft is healthy. "So much about it seems wrong for a planet that close to the Sun, so maybe it originated further out". NASA's Mariner 10 made three brief fly-bys in the 1970s, and the U.S. space agency's Messenger orbiter circled the planet between March 2011 and April 2015, when it ran out of fuel and crashed onto Mercury's surface.

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